LOS ANGELES — Seemingly regardless of circumstances or opponent, whether they establish a lead or fall behind early, the Washington Capitals rarely gain traction on the road. Their game Monday night against the Los Angeles Kings was no exception.
Los Angeles entered the contest as the lowest-scoring team in the NHL, but had no such trouble against the Capitals. With Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” punctuating several defensive breakdowns and ugly turnovers, the Kings erased a one-goal deficit en route to a 5-2 win over Washington at Staples Center.
It marked the Capitals’ second straight loss and dropped their record to 3-9-1 in their last 13 games away from Verizon Center.
“Our record all year proves we’re not playing well enough on the road,” said Coach Dale Hunter, whose Capitals are 7-12-1 on the road this season. “You’re in another building, you’re going to have to play harder.”
More concerning, perhaps, is that Washington closed out its two-game trip to California with a whimper so soon after a four-game winning streak that offered hope that it was turning a corner. Instead, for at least one more night, the Capitals (21-17-2) remain in 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings, six points behind Southeast Division-leading Florida.
“The frustrating part is we put three, four great games together and played the way we’re capable of playing,” said Dennis Wideman, who led the team with 26 minutes 40 seconds of ice time against the Kings. “It’s like we take a big breath or something and all of a sudden we turn around and we’re not playing the way we’re capable of. We lose two and we’re back to where we were.”
Despite starting on a positive note with their first opening-period goal on the road since Dec. 5 in Florida, the Capitals couldn’t translate it into continued success.
Marcus Johansson put Washington up 1-0 just 1:34 into the game with a wrister that beat Kings backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier (20 saves). After taking the initial lead, though, the Capitals couldn’t find a way to overcome the push from Los Angeles (21-15-7).
The Kings, who scored just two goals over their previous three games, pushed the game’s physicality and established themselves in the offensive zone for repeated chances against Tomas Vokoun (23 saves).
Alex Ovechkin was involved in continual shoving matches with several Kings, most regularly Mike Richards, whom the left winger has a history of altercations with dating to the world junior championship in 2005. Those checks didn’t seem to fuel Washington as much as they did the Kings, who outhit the visitors, 31-26.
“They cycled the puck on us, they outhit us tonight,” Hunter said. “We didn’t play tough enough against them and that’s what happens.
Los Angeles pulled even at one, 11:41 into the period when Wideman lost his assignment — Kyle Clifford — and the winger corralled a rebound off a point shot and fired a backhander between Vokoun’s legs. The more damaging tally, however, came with only 33.5 seconds remaining in the frame.
Brooks Laich, who has a reputation as one of the Capitals’ most defensively sound forwards, coughed up the puck in his own zone to Kings captain Dustin Brown. He sent a quick pass to Anze Kopitar, who fired to make it 2-1 and sent Washington to the dressing room reeling.
The start of the second brought Ovechkin’s first of only three shots on goal just over two minutes into the frame, but another Kings goal as well.
“We can’t have that. Somehow they outworked us,” Johansson said. “They get those chances that we want. It’s not acceptable to allow that many chances.”
Los Angeles sprung a three-on-one and Clifford sent a pass from the right faceoff circle to Jack Johnson for a one-timer that made it 3-1 with 3:01 left in the period. As the Capitals hung their heads, Johnson celebrated by Tebowing along the half-board wall.
The Kings continued to pile up chances as Washington offered little in protest of its growing deficit. With less than four minutes left in the second, Jarret Stoll found a loose puck in the crease and swatted it over the goal line to make it 4-1.
That would be the final goal allowed by Vokoun, who was making his sixth consecutive start, as the veteran netminder was pulled and replaced by Michal Neuvirth at the start of the third. Neuvirth finished with seven saves in his first appearance since Dec. 26.
Dustin Penner put Los Angeles ahead 5-1, 11:04 into the third when Neuvirth made the initial save but the puck bounced over his arm and into the net. Johansson’s second goal of night made it 5-2 when the game was far from Washington’s reach with just 6:18 remaining in regulation.
“It’s disappointing,” Matt Hendricks said. “We’re looking at the standings right now with games in hand on Florida. . . . We have these chances to win these games. To not do it is tough.”